At midnight on July 15th 2005, thousands of people were queueing to get their hands on a hardback copy of Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince. I sat at home and waited. Taking advantage of time-zones, a worldwide army of volunteers coordinated a massive transcription effort and released it as an ebook, which I read in my Palm PDA the next morning. That was my first experience of reading fiction electronically, and while imperfect, it worked.
What I didn’t know at the time was that a year earlier Sony had released the first commercial electronic book reader in Japan, called the Librie. I ordered one in January 2006 after reading an article on BoingBoing. It was my first international purchase, a fact that I remember because I was terrified that it wouldn’t arrive and that I’d be out of pocket by five hundred quid.
There have been a couple of electronic devices in my lifetime that have been so unlike anything released before that they elicit genuine amazement. The iPod touch was one. The Librie was another. It was the first example of an e-ink screen, which was low resolution by today’s standards, but quite remarkable back then. The software was in Japanese, though there was a hack to turn bits of it to English, and it was slow — but I didn’t pick up a paper book the whole time I owned it.
I’ve owned tons of e-ink devices since then. Sony and Amazon ruled the market for a while, but there’s now a plethora of companies doing interesting things with e-ink. Boox, Kobo and Pocketbook make e-readers that leave the Kindle in the dust, and companies like Supernote and Remarkable are making some compelling note-taking devices with the larger screens.
The great thing about e-ink as a display technology is its limitations. It doesn’t do colour, and the refresh rate is abysmal - so the only thing it’s any good for is displaying single pages of information. It’s the one piece of technology that I own that acts as an antidote to all the other technology I own. There are no ads, and no tracking. No infinite scroll or notifications. It does one thing only: let me escape this world for other worlds, uninterrupted - at least for a while.